You will never understand what it’s like to be Black in a White World

Hal Espy was my boss at Cal State Long Beach when I worked in the Kitchen for 49er Shops.  He was (may still be) a tall man who repeated the name of the person he just met seven times in their first introduction and then he never forgot the name. He was an Olympic Hopeful boxer of some repute before  running the dining halls at a state university.
Hal used to walk up to me and take my hands, hold them close to his eyes and say “Yep, never known a day of hard work. You will never have to know a day of hard work.”. How I wish that were true, but he was wrong on both counts.

What he was correct about was this : “You will never understand what it’s like to be Black in a White World. It is unfair, it won’t ever be fair, and you probably won’t have to care.”

In all fairness, I grew up in Arcadia California where I only saw two black students the entire time I was in school from Kinder through High School graduation. I thought I was doing my part to set the world to rights when I boycotted Carl’s Jr. for having an owner who supported Apartheid. Walking into the dining hall at CSULB was like walking into a different world. I honestly had never seen people of color en mass before. Hal gave me one of my first jobs and educated me in more than food preparation and service. I used to sleep and have dreams about serving food and my whole body ached from standing and stretching and crawling under equipment to clean it, lifting up heavy pans of water from the food warmers, and my brain hurt from converting recipes for larger or smaller batches. The most important lesson came from watching “Cops”, the television show, in his office. HE told me to count the number of black folk being arrested and compare it to how every other nationality was presented.
When people would visit me at LAMP on Skid Row, I usually fielded questions and comments about the number of people of color living in the streets and shelters. True enough, there are more black folk in poverty than white., There are also more black folks incarcerated, and fewer positive representations of them in the popular arts.
I think the United states operates on the Brown Bag beauty test – and if you are darker than the bag you will get short changed.
I have never been able to change the way people are perceived and treated, but I have cared.
For the record, I am the only Caucasian worker in my office and have been the only generic white person on my employment level here for over seven years. Actually, I don’t think I have ever worked anywhere when I was in the majority. While you may say I am misusing my white privileged by not using it, I will tell you that it gets plenty of use without my trying.


Hey guys,

So we’ve been hanging out here for over a decade (if you have been here since the beginning).

When I started this in an Excalibur hotel room in Las Vegas, I was a little buzzed and talking to my friends Bonnie and Isabel. They did not understand why I spend my days on skid row when I could choose to stay in cushy Arcadia, away from poverty, bugs and drugs.

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“Billy Blade” from my Skid Row days

The answer to that is “Poverty, drugs and disease are everywhere, even hidden in plain sight in ‘nice’ neighborhoods”. There is a stigma on poverty and people don’t ask for help because asking involves revealing that status.

My goal was to tell the story of my experiences – to let my friends see the world with me as their lens.

One example is: This is “Billy”. On the surface he is smelly, scary and unpleasant. He is a “stereotypical homeless guy” with visible symptoms of mental illness and completely off-putting. The reality of Billy is that he would bake me chocolate chip cookies on his cook stove and give me audio tapes of the radio show he always wished he could host. Billy was a teen foster kid who never bonded with his parents. As an adult he was desperate for love and acceptance but could not recognize it or trust it when it was offered to him. USC has taught me that this is related to Erickson’s stages of development and attachment. Fancy theories aside, what I want this blog to do is let you know that there is more to Billy than his smell and gruff manner and the surprising number of knives he has secreted on his person are more about him feeling safe and less about your chances of being stabbed by him.

In the big picture, I worry that I have failed. Homelessness sucks and I really wanted to slide in on the ground floor of the ending of homelessness. I had dreams that the problem would be defined and solution refined and I would be an active agent of change. The reality is that homelessness keeps increasing at 12% jumps. I suck. I have not ended anything.

But I also rock. Individuals have come to my desk homeless and the last time they left my office they had homes.

A bigger scale of success is “What have you learned from”

National single parent day

Easily about 92% of the family’s I saw when I worked in the welfare system were single parent families. Most of those families were led by women and almost none of them received child support.

It’s like I could have been my own client. It is only through assistance from families and friends and my own perseverance and education that I have not become homeless myself.

#singleparent #parent
This is my 23rd Single Parent Day.
Nobody sent me flowers

Let’s Discuss Dignity

Twenty-two years ago I spent two days laying face down, crying into my living room carpet . Everything I had tried just failed.  Big things, a thousand small things, all of the things had slipped from my grasp and I was failing.

I had been psyched up to be a wife, and a young stay at home mother, and maybe someone who completed a BA down the road if I found time in my suburban dream. Instead, my relationship crumbled, Mervyn’s fired me (because I was obviously falsifying comment cards, it was impossible that I could be so good with people…but ask me about this another time), and I had 3/4ths of a degree in Physical Therapy with no way to get back into my life as I had known it.

When it “got real”, I pulled out the phone book, found the blue pages of government listing service and looked up the address to the Welfare Office. Bleakness.  I walked into to a dim green room where my shoes stuck to the floor and I will never be certain if the puddle in the chair next to me was apple juice, but I’ve decided to believe it was. In my hands I held a ten page, double sided application, and a pen. I could not fill it out. I must have made five trips to the Help Desk and I still wasn’t comfortable. I met with an eligibility worker who shamed me; pointed out that all the other white people on the building were employees, and send me home with a list of needed documents and a follow up appointment.  That was the day I walked back into my little apartment and folded onto the floor wondering if if I could ever get up again.

Twenty years later, or 2 years ago, I had my Bachelor’s Degree is Sociology, my own car, house, and no debt at all. I found my revenge on the County Welfare system by becoming an employee within it in a job that allowed me to do outreach work and volunteer in my community. My baby was off at  college, but a second child had arrived and I was still a single mother – only by this time I was doing okay. Education, house, career, and home life were all neatly checked off in the Success column.

   The floors of the Welfare office must never get washed.

I had this thought as I was lying face down in the lobby of the GAIN office in Burbank. Just seconds before I was walking a client to the door when the room spun and the floor ate my face. My doctors pulled me out of work and put me on medical leave.

Medical leave is nice and all, but waiting for Disability to come in so I could pay my bills and feed my youngest daughter was nerve-wracking. I had some concerns. I shared these thoughts with the front desk volunteer at MEND one Thursday morning in late January. I was in the San Fernando Road  office working on the silent auction for the Gala fundraiser my local non-profit throws to breathe life into their programs designed to help people survive in an impoverished neighborhood and find ways to leave that desperate economic strata. As we talked, Adela, the volunteer, walked me into the intake room and put me at a desk.  When a third person walked in, Adela said “This is Sonya and she needs to see if she qualifies for your program.” She smiled down at me and whispered “Come to my desk if you have problems with the forms” and disappeared down the hall. A week later an EBT card arrived in the mail.

This was the MEND effect.

Meet each need with dignity.

I was treated with dignity, and not because I volunteered for MEND, but because that is how MEND works. Some Saturdays I walk in through the floor to ceiling glass doors and stand by that reception desk just to watch the flow of faces. Little kids sit laughing at the tables, parents chat in the waiting room chairs, someone is always knitting in front of the clothing boutique, and bent senior citizens angle their grinning faces up to each other while they wait for food, or a medical appointment, or whatever special program is  offered that day.

Mend staff on Oscar night at universal stidios
MEND staff at their fundraising gala

The floor is not sticky. The room is not dim. The chairs are dry and clean. In my five years of volunteering for MEND, I must have had the opportunity to sit in every chair and even the one I broke in Lupe’s office was clean. I never intended to be a MEND client, even momentarily, and I never felt like one. I don’t think anyone does.

I’m used to volunteering at MEND

The MEND Effect is a design feature that started with the Rose family who just wanted to do a little something nice for their neighbors and then let others in on their idea until it grew into the community icon it is today.

MEND is not the heart of Pacoima. MEND is the limbic system that connects all of the other vital parts of the community ; politicians, doctors, dentists, tutors, teachers, schools, grocery stores, dance teachers, Health educators, financial institutions like Home Street Bank and Wells Fargo, ophthalmologist, dental and nursing students and their programs, the Welfare to Work program, courts, and more all touch and mingle in the bright beautiful building at Pierce and San Fernando Road and in the ETC nestled into the heart of Van Nuys Boulevard. MEND staff are likely to shake hands with a Board of Supervisors Member with the same warmth and enthusiasm they shared while clasping  hands with an elderly client.

Nene with “young volunteers “.

You will hear that MEND is volunteer run. Seasonal volunteers, like me, drop in for special programs like the Santa’s Workshop, Christmas in the Spring, and Head to Toes. Day to day volunteers answer the phones, pack food boxes, drive delivery trucks, teach English, send out mail, scheadule medical, vision, and dental appointments and perform the technical arts of Dentistry and Medicine. Volunteers are everywhere and they are hard to spot unless they come in the form of a Scout Troop. (It is safe to say that eleven-year-olds are not on the payroll.) MEND volunteers are trained, knowledgeable and efficient. This is not accident. Every volunteer is assigned to a department and each department has  staff members tasked with being an expert in their area and teaching their volunteers everything they know. Sharing their knowledge keeps the program alive and the volunteers take these skills back to the neighborhood where they are passed around again and the entire community is better educated, elevated and healthier.

The first time I used the EBT card (it is in my wallet as a reminder, ask and I will show you) was at Food 4 Less in Van Nuys and Glenoaks. The cashier leaned over and whispered “If you need more help than that, go to MEND”.

Volunteers at the 2017 Gala

 Poverty and food scarcity is only a paycheck in either direction. I donate money, time, and goods to MEND because I keep being reminded of this unfortunate truth. Through MEND, poverty can be survived with dignity.

Dignity will pull you up off the floor, not push you down in tears.